Green cod heads and the case of the missing halibut

Copper kettle full of cod heads. Source: Alaska OHA.

I was feeling sick yesterday and this picture didn’t help: from the Castle Hill excavations at Sitka, Alaska (previously 1, 2) is the nearly complete copper kettle.  Inside, the archaeologists found the green-stained bones from the heads of three codfish (true cods, Gadidae, are 35% of the fish assemblage).  One of the great things about archaeology is to get these tiny slices of life: someone’s kettle of fish, set aside one day 200 years ago.

At a bigger scale, archaeology isn’t always so straightforward though.  Interestingly, from the site as a whole, only 1% of the fish bones are from halibut (11 bones in total).  This is despite the fact that:

Cod dominated the Castle Hill assemblage, and yet, Emmons (1991:148) stated that cod was considered an unimportant part of the Tlingit diet if salmon and halibut were available. Historic records confirm that cod was popular in Sitka, because it was available almost year around (Gibson 1976:40, Khlebnikov 1994). Halibut was also popular because of its year around availability and was sold to the Russians in large numbers. Between 22,000 and 138,000 pounds of halibut were purchased each year from the Tlingit from 1846 to 1866 in addition to the yearly average of 13,000 pounds of halibut the company procured itself (Gibson 1987:94). The emphasis on halibut brought to Sitka and sold to the Russian-American Company would lead to the prediction that halibut should dominate the assemblage, yet this is not the case. It may be a case where cod were readily available and not worthy of special consideration in historic documents.

Two things strike me about this.  One is that the Tlingit, using largely traditional methods at the time, were able to produce up to 138,000 pounds of excess halibut for trading purposes.  That’s a lot of fish.  The other is that so much halibut renders down to so few bones.  Halibut is long known on the NW Coast as being strongly under-represented in archaeological sites, probably because it may have been butchered on the beach and the bones, which separate cleanly from the meat, would end up in the intertidal zone and be washed away or eaten by dogs.  It also seems possible  that the Tlingit were trading in dried, boneless halibut (which makes the tonnage involved all the more impressive).  And certainly the entire site was not excavated, so there may be a mother lode of halibut bones somewhere.  But this case makes an interesting cautionary tale in zooarchaeology: we seldom have an accurate sense of the scale of the incoming fish quantities to compare to what is left in the ground, and when we do, the degree of difference between the written and material records is often quite startling!

Tlingit women and children cleaning fish on the beach, ca. 1907. Ignore the racist caption. Source: U. Washington.

6 responses to “Green cod heads and the case of the missing halibut

  1. How old are these cod-heads? I’m suprised that any kind of fish bones would survive for very long. Would the skin on the heads last longer than any of the other parts?

    I’ve been looking for recipes for codfish, but hadn’t considered copper patina as a marinade!


  2. Hi Janet,

    I hope you didn’t come here looking for delicious recipes!

    The cod bones are about 175 years old. In this case they probably preserved better than average because the copper would inhibit bacterial and fungal growth which would destroy the organic part of the bones. The usual enemies of bone preservation are sunlight, acid, and bacteria. So if you can limit those, fish bones can last a long time. Sites with a lot of shell in them, for example, are slightly alkaline and fish bones can preserve really well for thousands of years. In dark limestone caves, they can preserve indefinitely: one cave on Haida Gwaii on which I am working has thousands of salmon bones dating back to 13,000 years ago.

    Hey – I love your salt cod lino cuts:
    Archaeologists would be a good market for those, you know!



  3. oh so provocative and timely …

    just to put hats on feet, etc

    it is also the case that folk who read a lot of ethnography and don’t find those life and times verified in zooarch assemblage may benefit from imagining a potentially even richer and more complex zooarchaeologically informed past which may quantitatively contrast with those fish that are talked about most commonly in the historic era ethnographies…


  4. Zooarchaeologists can all count, but when do they know what a meaningful number is?

    The question here isn’t a hypothetical situation of a historical distortion vs a zooarchaeologically informed past, its one of a known (large) quantity of halibut traded to a small fort and a known (small) quantity of their bones recovered, producing an (awkward) cautionary tale.

    Halibut vision (two eyes on same side of head) is meant to be an antidote to “Salmonopeia”, but if you want to stick up for hake, or anchovies, or ratfish, then those are useful antidotes as well.

    I think Madonna Moss has a Sitka-area pre-contact Tlingit site which is dominated by Pacific cod and there might even be a website for it, I’ll check.


  5. “Zooarchaeologists can all count” – don’t be too sure of their numeracy skills 🙂

    I wonder if the caption is purely racist, or is perhaps just as much a reflection of the contemporary temperance movement? The temperance movement often blamed problems with EuroAmerican and European family life on the men going off to the pub or saloon and drinking up all the wages, while the wife and kids were left at home literally starving. And that continues through even modern literature (I’m thinking Angela’s Ashes). I think this was also used as an arguement in the early Suffragette and women’s movements. So perhaps it was a tongue-in-cheek rebellion against the political-correctness of the day rather than a racist remark? Or maybe it was both?


  6. Pacific cod is a woefully under-appreciated fish! See chapters 10-13 in our book, The Archaeology of North Pacific Fisheries, ed. by M. L. Moss and A. Cannon (2011), University of Alaska Press.


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